TransitWorks and our region's future

What would it take to get YOU out of YOUR car?

by William Lieberman, AICP, Metropolitan Transit Development Board


uite often at MTDB the transit oversight agency for San Diego we are so busy developing individual transit projects and "putting out fires" that we lose sight of the big picture. Stated another way, we are too involved with planting the trees to have time to discern the shape of the forest we are creating. This is an all-too-common situation for the public sector. We decided to change all that by developing a strategic plan. We call our plan TransitWorks.

We made a key decision early in the process: we would base TransitWorks on a solid understanding of consumer preferences and local travel behavior. Therefore, to better understand the nature of our riders - and, perhaps more importantly, our non-riders we undertook an extensive market segmentation study. This study surveyed almost 1,000 county residents and, through their answers to our questions, helped us to cluster them into a small number of discrete groups. Within each group, or "market segment," residents share similar attitudes and travel behaviors. By understanding these, we can better determine what we must do to get different types of people to use our system. The results have been eye opening and are leading us to new ways of viewing the public and ourselves.

We are now identifying the major daily trip patterns that occur daily in the region and the market segments that predominate in each. We're using this information to suggest an array of improvements to cater to these market segments and attract more people to public transportation. We have also devised four alternative scenarios for MTDB's role in the metropolitan area [see below]. These range from doing about the same as what we do today to being very aggressive in shaping the area's travel patterns. This latter scenario would require more funding for capital and operating improvements, greater influence over the density and pedestrian-orientation of new development, and pursuing priority measures for transit vehicles to avoid traffic congestion.

TransitWorks has been both stimulating and informative, and it promises to revolutionize how we get around San Diego in the future. However, I see several pitfalls ahead that could diminish its effectiveness:


1. Letting the tactics outshine the strategy

  It's natural to be enamored with the projects and proposals we will be coming up with. However, if TransitWorks has taught us nothing else, it has been the value of always keeping our eye on the big picture and the big questions. If we don't constantly refer back to our overall objectives for transit, we'll soon return to the point where we are today, concentrating on individual elements (some of which may conflict with each other) at the expense of seeing the whole.


2. Allowing "equity" to prevail over innovation

  The transit industry has tended to hamstring itself by doing everything possible to keep fares low, even at the expense of maintaining the quality of its services. Our market research has shown that, within limits, the cost of travel is not a major consideration for most people, but speed and service quality are. We may be able to provide these if we start to "brand" our products and create some premium services at premium prices. This flies in the face of many peoples' expectations about the "fairness" of such pricing for the poor. However, systems oriented to the poor are quite often poor systems. It will be important to break free from this thinking and develop an overlay of service in which speed and quality are stressed, albeit at higher prices.


3. Walking the walk

  There has been a lot of talk about thinking "outside the box," but I wonder how many of its advocates are really prepared for radical change. Creative transit solutions may result in higher densities in your neighborhood, the reduction of auto capacity on some streets you use today, or the operation of a new transit service right in front of your own home. Quite often, the most vocal proponents of change become its biggest impediments because they were unable to visualize a truly different future with different values and opportunities.


4. Dropping the ball when it comes to money

TransitWorks has encouraged us to think creatively without being limited by present sources of funding. This is necessary to determine what is possible and what is desirable. However, make no mistake about it. Breaking out of the box is likely to be expensive. As a region, of course, we may actually save money by shifting our investments from an auto-based system to a balanced one, and by developing growth patterns that are more efficient and cost-effective. Nonetheless, there may be "sticker shock" initially among many taxpayers and elected officials that could dampen enthusiasm for continuing further.

Despite the caveats above, I'm optimistic that this is the time and place for change. There is a growing consensus that the low-density sprawl that characterized our growth over the past 40 years cannot continue without severely reducing our quality of life. With SANDAG, the City and County of San Diego, and North County Transit all developing strategic plans, we have a precious opportunity to make changes to both what we do and how we do it. I believe that TransitWorks will help influence those changes in a very positive way. I hope that you'll support us in this process.


TransitWorks "Lessons learned"


It's not the mode, it's the service

As you look at responses from market segmentation study:


  • Market depends on qualities of service not the "mode" itself.
  • Can't extend rail service due to physical constraints or costs.
  • If we offer bus service with equivalent service, it can increase ridership.
  • Have to design for new markets and understand what people are looking for.
  • 81% of the region consists of more demanding markets than we have been serving.
  • Have to do the things people are looking for in their travel experience.
  • Design of stops and walking environment is key.


Importance of speed


  • The faster we get our average speeds, the more people we will attract to transit. Any strategies that speed vehicles will pay great dividends.


Importance of frequency


  • Will produce better gains in ridership than just expanding the system. 10 minute frequency on core routes?


Importance of minimizing transfers


  • Our system requires transfers but we need to make them as convenient and direct as possible.

TransitWorks Strategic Framework

Four future scenarios based on: funding (capital/operations), coordination of local land use measures, and transit priority in local areas.

  • Basic Mobility. No more TransNet funding (1/2 cent sales tax due to run out in 2007). Transit tries to hold its own - but difficult with rising costs of energy, labor rates. This could lead to shrinking system.
  • Mobility Plus. Assumes reauthorization of Transit share of TransNet (1/6 cent portion of sales tax) in the county. Change the current 80% capital/20% operations to a 50/50 mix. Implement some land use and transit priority measures.
  • Region's Second Car. Much higher infusion of capital and operating funds to provide more services that people need to use the system. Much higher on operating funds.
  • Transit First. Highest degree of funding and coordination.

Passenger throughput rises more than vehicle throughput. This gets easier to implement once you get to scenario 3.

William Lieberman, AICP, is the Director of Planning and Operations, Metropolitan Transit Development Board (MTDB). This article originally appeared in the newsletter for C3, a local nonprofit group working "Toward Permanent Paradise." Contact them at: P.O. Box 121028, San Diego CA 92112 (619) 232-7196.